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How President Béji Caid Essebsi Helped Build Tunisia's Democracy

Gordon Gray

Tunisia, North Africa

Caid Essebsi had a clear vision: having dispatched Ben Ali, Tunisia now needed to look ahead and take affirmative steps to build a democratic system.

It is entirely fitting that former President Béji Caid Essebsi passed away on July 25, the date which Tunisia celebrates as Republic Day. To fully appreciate his immense contribution to the continued success of Tunisia’s democracy, one needs to go back to 2011, when I had the privilege of serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia. 

In February of that year, the Arab Spring appeared to be on the ropes. Although protestors had succeeded in overthrowing long-time strongmen Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt—whose combined authoritarian rule had spanned more than fifty-two years—the prospects for peaceful transitions of power were bleak. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, large demonstrations rocked the capital of Tunis, as protestors called for the resignation of the Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi—a hold-over from the Ben Ali regime—and the end of his interim government.

In neighboring Libya, Muammar el-Qaddafi gave his infamous “zenga zenga” speech on February 22, promising to root out protestors “inch by inch, house by house, home by home, alleyway (zenga) by alleyway.” While his bellicose speech was targeted at Libyans demonstrating against him, it did nothing to ease Tunisian fears that Qaddafi would allow Ben Ali to use Tripoli as a base for returning to power in Tunis. Nor were protests and repression limited to North Africa: that same month, Bahrain was rocked by deadly clashes between riot police and citizens demanding reform.

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